A riddle for you all

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Alice joins a tea party which includes a Mad Hatter, a March Hare, and a Dormouse. During the course of the conversation, the Hatter asks Alice, “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” Alice considers the riddle and finally admits that she cannot guess the answer. The Hatter acknowledges that he also does not know the answer to his question. Over the years, many fans of Alice have proposed answers to the riddle. The best, found in Frances Huxley’s The Raven and the Writing Desk (1976) is that “each begins with an E.”

In the course of my duties at work, I have encountered a similar riddle. It was printed on a scrap of paper, contained in a box with many other papers. Nothing else relative to this question was found in the box. The question, in full, is this: “Which is weaker: a carrot or a pumpkin?”

After looking for some sort of context in the rest of the papers in that box, I tried Googling © the question. I received many recipes containing carrots or pumpkins, and also a digital copy of a book about the history of gardening, but nothing I found answered the question.

If any of you have ever encountered this question and can offer some context, along with an answer, I will be delighted. Otherwise, any intelligent guesses will also be welcome. This little riddle could provide an interesting rabbit hole for all of us, or it may be just a smile before we go on to other things. J.

Seven classic novels for children

I’ve been buried in words the last several weeks, as I have engaged in a host of literary tasks. First, I am copy-editing and tweaking my book on Revelation, with the hope of sending it to the publisher in a week or two. Second, I’ve been quickly reading a book about the Sabbath (Saturday or Sunday) to which I’ve been asked to write a response. Third, I’m still enjoying First on the Moon as I celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo XI mission. Add to that my regular reading from the Bible and devotional material (I will finish Jerome on Monday—yea!), and have started reading Steinbeck’s novels, and am catching up on a stack of books I’ve acquired over the years without bothering to read them until now. On top of that, I chose this summer to revisit some old friends from my childhood.

In the family library downstairs I have my reading chair. Just behind the chair, on one of the corner shelves, are two rows of children’s books—some were bought for my children, but most have belonged to me when I was young. Working my way through Jerome and Steinbeck, I’d see these books out of the corner of my eye. Seven particular books are old friends, books that I would read and enjoy every summer when I was a boy. Finally, I couldn’t resist the temptation—I grabbed one of the seven and added it to my daily reading schedule.

In no particular order, here are my seven old friends.

Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass: Mathematician Charles Dodgson created amusing tales for his friend and neighbor, Alice Liddell, and her sisters. Using the name Lewis Carroll, he published these stories to share with the world. Starring Alice, the two stories follow a little girl on two amazing journeys, one down a rabbit tunnel where she meets a variety of interesting characters, many of whom are members of a deck of cards. The second takes here through a mirror where she joins a chess game as a pawn, eventually crossing the board and becoming a queen, also meeting a variety of interesting characters along the way. In both stories, Dodgson (or Carroll) intersperses plot with poetry, sometimes with nonsense poems and sometimes with satires upon classic children’s poetry. He also blends in simple logic puzzles and other signs of his brilliant mathematical mind.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer: Journalist Samuel Clemens also took on a pen name, calling himself Mark Twain as he wrote amusing stories to appear in journals and in books. His childhood memories that he blended into the character of Tom Sawyer and his friends are among his most remembered and beloved stories. Tom is a lively rascal, flitting from one adventure to another, but getting involved unintentionally in some of the greater drama of his community. Much of Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, is dedicated to his memory; I recommend a visit there during summer travels.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: More than a sequel to Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn tells the story of a lost boy, son of the town drunk, who eventually takes a raft down the Mississippi River in the company of an escaping slave. Without straying from plot and adventure, the book also wrestles with the problems of race, slavery, and human nature in general. One episode, set in an unnamed Arkansas riverside city (probably Napoleon) has the two travelers who have joined Huck and Jim swindle an entire city of naïve citizens. Tom Sawyer makes an appearance toward the end of the book, but he’s not the same carefree boy of his own novel. Instead, he builds an intricate web of intrigue to rescue Jim from confinement, even though Tom knows all along that Jim has already been freed by his owner.

Heidi: Johanna Spyri describes a young Swiss orphan who is left to her grandfather, a recluse living high on a mountain. The title character brings life and joy to all the neighborhood, but suddenly she is snatched away to be the companion of a crippled girl (probably a polio victim, although the book does not say) in Frankfurt. Heidi is miserable in the city, but she continues to bring life and joy to others. Along the way she is introduced to Christian piety by Klara’s grandmother, who teaches Heidi to pray and to trust the Good Lord. Heidi does as she is told, is whisked back to her grandfather on the mountaintop, once again brings life and joy to her neighbors, and does the same for her newer friends when they visit from Frankfurt. If you have only seen the Shirley Temple movie based on this book, you must read the book for yourself.

The Wizard of Oz: Frank Baum created a story which may or may not be an allegory of American politics. Dorothy Gale lives on a farm with her uncle and aunt and her little dog Toto, until one day a tornado lifts her and Toto to the land of Oz. There, she must travel to the capital city to see if the wizard can return her to Kansas. Along the way she is joined by a scarecrow seeking brains, a tin man needing a heart, and a lion wanting courage. To earn what they seek, they must kill the Wicked Witch of the West. The movie version, starring Judy Garland, omits many of the interesting events in the book; and the movie destroys the story with its resolution of “it was all a dream.”

Five Little Peppers and How They Grew: This story was written by Margaret Sidney. Three boys and two girls are being raised by their mother in poverty, but for the most part they are happy in spite of their lack of material comforts. About with the measles tests the family’s endurance, but afterward they cross paths with a rich family that dotes on the Peppers and mentors them. Unspoiled by their taste of wealth, the Peppers (like Heidi) continue to bring blessings into the lives of those near them. Even though I read the book every summer, my favorite chapters relate the family’s effort to celebrate Christmas in spite of their poverty.

Treasure Island: Robert Louis Stevenson begins his adventure with the son of an innkeeper. One of the inn’s residents is a retired pirate, now in hiding. When the pirate dies, his treasure map falls into the hands of the innkeeper’s son, just ahead of the effort of the other pirates to recover the map. Two wealthy gentlemen join with the son to sail to the island and find the buried treasure. Unfortunately, much of the crew that they hire as sailors consists of former pirates seeking the same treasure. Jim—the innkeepers’ son and now a cabin-boy, happens always to be in the right place at the right time to learn the plans of the pirates, led by the one-legged Long John Silver, and to foil those plans.

This is just some of the classic literature I am enjoying this summer. J.

Ten books on a deserted island

A question is sometimes asked of celebrities, or among friends having a conversation. The question is, “If you were to spend the rest of your life alone on an island, what ten books would you want to have with you?” Since no one has actually asked me that question, I am free to change the rules. I will allow myself twelve books on my deserted island, because the Holy Bible and the hymnal are such obvious selections that they need no explanation. The following ten books are listed alphabetically by author.

  • Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights. I have been enchanted by this book from the first time I read it, which was a winter weekend while I was still in school. One of the most remarkable things about this book is that it contains not a single likeable character. Each of them, even the minor characters, is deeply flawed. Even the narrator of the story has more flaws than virtues in his weak yet self-centered approach to others. What is enjoyable about reading about flawed people? One tires of endless nobility and generosity in so many other books of this genre. Wuthering Heights is the truest novel of its time and setting of any I have yet discovered. Yet it also far surpasses all the later attempts to write novels of fiction that contained only believable storylines with no fantasy or mystery.
  • Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, fortunately printed in the same volume. This is one of eight books I read faithfully every summer of my childhood. (Perhaps someday I will blog about all eight.) In contrast to Wuthering Heights, the Alice stories depict a whimsical world of nonsense that is not quite nonsense, because it possesses its own inner sense. I would be sorry to spend the rest of my days without one childlike pleasure in my collection.
  • Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot. Some years ago I began reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky because I thought I should, and this novel stood out as the gem of the collection. The title character is a simple-minded prince who wanders into the treacherous world of polite and refined society, yet survives all its traps, at least for a while. Many readers have tried to present the prince as a Christ-like character. I’m not sure that is true, but the story possesses a delightful view of Russian noble life in the nineteenth century that blends well with the world of the Brontes, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Lewis Carroll.
  • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. Not one of my favorites the first time I read it, this novel has grown on me with repeated readings. It truly deserves to be considered “the Great American Novel,” because it depicts both sides of life in the America of its time, while also presenting timeless messages about wealth and about finding meaning in life (or failing to do so). I find it completely appropriate that Andy Kaufman chose to read this particular novel to his audiences at one point in his career, because so much of the novel reveals the difference between surface impressions and deeper realities.
  • Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. If I was allowed to choose only Hemingway or only Fitzgerald for my library, I would go with Hemingway without hesitation. This is, no doubt, his greatest novel. I remember reading it late at night during a hot summer when I came home from work after midnight, not yet sleepy. The characters and settings of this book are as vivid and as believable as any I can remember from literature in general.
  • A Kierkegaard Anthology, edited by Robert Bretall. I could not spend the rest of my days without some Kierkegaard, and if I cannot have the complete collection with me, Bretall’s anthology is second-best. Kierkegaard is a thoughtful writer and surprisingly relevant to present-day topics. He is not easy to read, and is often misunderstood, but I find time spent reading his writing worth the effort.
  • Margaret Mitchell, Gone With the Wind. If I’m to spend the rest of my life on this island, I want to have at least one book I have never read before. Ever since I read Moby Dick a few years ago, Gone With the Wind has been the “most important book I never read.” I’ve seen the movie a time or two, and other members of my family have read the book and enjoyed it, so I think I will include it in my collection.
  • Vladimir Nabakov, Pale Fire. Hemingway and Fitzgerald write well, but Nabakov paints with words; his artistry surpasses all other authors who write in English. This sublime writing is particularly amazing, because English was Nabakov’s third language, after Russian and French. Although he is most famous for writing Lolita, Nabakov’s best work is Pale Fire. He weaves several stories together by having one character write a thousand-line poem and having another write the Foreword and Commentary on the poem. The misunderstandings shown by the second character are both farcical and elegant. Nabakov creates a multi-layered work which remains readable and entertaining, unlike the cubist writing of James Joyce. “Chapman’s Homer” indeed!
  • Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. This book also works on several levels (Spoilers coming!!) as it combines a story of a father and son traveling cross-country by motorcycle, memories of a nervous breakdown, a history of western philosophy, and elements of eastern philosophy. Pirsig’s ability to weave these disparate elements into a satisfying novel not only make me want to read the novel again and again but also to study the philosophers he mentioned.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse Five. If I had to choose between these masterpieces, I would go with Cat’s Cradle. Fortunately, a publisher has recently produced a several-volume set of Vonnegut’s novels, and these two works are in the same volume. Vonnegut’s work has been described as “dark humor.” He writes with a light touch, but he conveys deep thoughts. His style is perfect to lift the heaviness of some of the other works I have chosen.

I hope I am never stranded anywhere without my complete library—my follow-up list of honorable mentions would be longer than some of these books. But if I had to limit myself to just a few books, these are the ones I would choose. J.